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Changing Course: The Whistleblower
by Kevin Lavery
KWMU Radio, St. Louis
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For more than seven years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been studying ways to enhance the capacity of the upper Mississippi River to carry commercial barge traffic. One option is to expand some of the locks in order to reduce the time it takes for barges to travel between ports. But one Corps economist says the benefits of lock expansion don't outweigh the costs. Now, he's blowing the whistle on those who he says have fixed the numbers to justify a $1 billion construction project.
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LOCK AND DAM NUMBER 25 near Winfield, Missouri straddles the upper Mississippi 40 miles north of St. Louis. In 1999, 39 million tons of grain, soybeans and other cargo passed through here.

A lock is essentially a watery elevator that raises and lowers boats to different depths. Each lock is 600 feet long, but a typical 15-barge tow is 1,200 feet long. Walter Feld, with the Corps of Engineers' St. Louis District, says a tow has to break apart to negotiate the lock's narrow chamber.

"One lockage would take about 30 minutes. When you break that tow apart and put two pieces together, it takes probably closer to 90 minutes. So all that delay adds up to triple the length of time to get through it," Feld says.

In 1993, the Corps began a $58 million study of the upper Mississippi in an attempt to plan for the needs of the navigation industry over the next 50 years. Dr. Donald Sweeney was named the lead economist for the study.

"The feasibility study is a planning and implementation study. You're required to investigate the economic effects and environmental consequences of whatever actions you might propose," according to Sweeney.

At the start of the study, Sweeney says his team was told to give its best unbiased estimate of the situation. "I believe that was truly the spirit of the study up until late 1997, at which it turned 180 degrees," he says.

Among other alternatives, the Corps looked at doubling the size of seven locks to reduce congestion on the river. But the economics team concluded the benefits gained would not be worth the cost of construction. Sweeney says the analysis showed such a project would result in a loss of up to $20 million a year.

In a written affidavit, Sweeney testified that top Corps officials ordered the economists to alter their analysis to justify spending a billion dollars to expand the locks. The report points to a number of internal memos indicating the Corps' desire to appease the barge industry. In 1998, Sweeney was relieved as head of the economics team, five years after the study began.
See Donald Sweeney's affadavit, which accused Corps officials of manipulating data to find out if large-scale improvements to the navigation system are needed on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

See special counsel investigation into Sweeney's allegations. (PDF file)

See the Army Corps of Engineers response to Sweeney's allegations.

Lock expansion is not the only option at the Corps' disposal. Spokesman Ron Fournier says the agency has looked at a number of construction projects, such as extending guide walls on the river and adding buoys for barges to tie up to during long waits. Fournier says Dr. Sweeney failed to consider some of these alternatives, many of which he says were added since the economist left the study team.

"The navigation study has been evolving for the past seven years; as new data is received from the shipping industry, from the farm growers and from a variety of other economists throughout the country, new figures, new numbers and new calculations are being used and different results are being obtained," Fournier says.

"There's no wrongdoing, and, of course, the Corps will prove that the study has been done in an above-board, upright manner."

- Ron Fournier,
Army Corps of Engineers spokesman
Another reason Sweeney says the Corps is pushing expansion is because such projects would bolster the agency's stagnant budget.

"They're trying to become a bigger, more vital agency. And sometimes that conflicts with a purely unbiased, scientific analysis of potentially a billion dollars worth of expenditures," says Sweeney.

In March 2000, the Office of Special Counsel declared the Corps likely had violated the law in catering to the interests of commercial navigation. The OSC is the independent federal agency with whom Sweeney filed his affidavit.

Spokesman Ron Fournier says from the start, the Corps has been forthright about the study both with Congress and the public.

"We feel that when this investigation is complete, they'll find there's no wrongdoing, and, of course, the Corps will prove that the study has been done in an above-board, upright manner," says Fournier.

The investigation has also reached the congressional level. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is conducted a number of public hearings on the study.

The Great Lakes Radio Consortium is a news service committed to revealing the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in the Great Lakes region.

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